Mark Starr: A Worker Looks At History

Chapter 18: The Trade Unions from 1900 to 1916

18. The Trade Unions from 1900 to 1916. 'WE have followed the trade unions in their progress from illegal secret societies, with their hand against every man, to legally recognised law-abiding bodies, with sane and responsible leaders and policies; from wild schemes of general unions, with revolutionary aims,- to the "model" unions with their huge reserve and benefit funds and their highly centralised structure.

We have seen how changing material conditions destroyed the anti-strike policy, and the "no politics in the union" stage of the organizations, by reviving the hostility between the two classes; how the alarmed capitalist class used their legal and political power to hamper the growth of the unions, thus forcing them to take up the issue in the political field; how these conditions produced the "new unionism," differing in policy and structure from the ol; and how new schools of thought and propagandist bodies, working through the trade unions, gave fresh aims and new ideas and methods to the trade unionists. An explanation as to why militancy was so long delayed was also offered. The first years of the 20th century were chiefly occupied with the political phase of this militancy, and for very good reasons.

Political Activity.-Undoubtedly it was the backwardness of the craft unions which caused so much faith to be placed in political action. The new unions openly adopted it, and one by one the older unions saw its usefulness. Many of the workers hoped to achieve a unity and independence upon the political field which the craft unions and their policy prevented them from getting on the industrial field. Many of them, too, being State Socialists, had hopes of electing sufficient Labour M.P.'s to be able to "legislate in" in a new state of affairs, which would bring for the worker surer, morelasting, and better conditions than those obtained by him in his industrial efforts. As if political unity and strength could be obtained before industrial unity and strength! Laws are not the horses of the chariot of progress; in actual fact, the politicians are ever striving with their measures and constant amendments to catch up to industrial development.

Yet, in dealing with the breakdown of peace between the workers and their employers and its industrial and political manifestations, it should be remembered that progress was slow. New ideas, generated in new conditions, filtered but slowly into the heads of the workers; ideas stubbornly persist long after development has made them obsolete. The independence of Labour was realised only in a nominal fashion. Only the more advanced few of the workers recognised the divorce of interests between the old parties and the new one.

For numbers and names of Labour representatives, from 1874 till 1910, the reader should consult Part III of the Labour Year Book (1916). The Labour Representation Committee, which in 1906 became the Labour Party, was formed in 1900 by trade unions, Socialist and other kindred organizations. The alliance of the older unions to form the Labour Party resulted, not from a general conversion of their rank and file to Socialism by the propagandist bodies -though this may have been a contributing factor- but, as in their previous history, they were again forced into politics in order to safeguard their own position.

The employers were disturbed at the aggressive policy of the militant New Unionism, which carried on vigorous attacks upon non-unionism. In 1898 the Allen v. Flood law case showed how they endeavoured to limit the growing powers of the Trade Unions. Two non-unionists, discharged by their employers at the suggestion of a union official representing their fellow-workmen, who otherwise would have struck, brought an action against Allen, the union official. The magistrates decided that he had "maliciously induced the emp1oyers to discharge them," and awarded damages to Flood and Taylor. This decision was, however, reversed by the House of Lords.

Another case, Quinn v Leatham, in 1901, did not end so favourably for the unions. The well-known Taff Vale Case was the occasion of another adverse decision which made instant action necessary by the Trade Unions. The Taff Vale Railway Company were granted damages against the A.S.R.S. because some of its members, acting upon official instructions, had "watched" and "beset" blacklegs, thus preventing them from entering into the service of the railway company. "The result of this decision was that the funds of the unions became liable for damages for the wrongful acts of their agents; the damages and costs of the action cost the union over £46,000, and trade union officials and labour leaders were astonished and dismayed at the result." The Trade Unions were left in a dangerous position; they could not take legal action against their members, yet they could be sued for the doings of those members, and their accumulated funds were now in peril.

The political activity and agitation caused by this situation had its effect in the Trades Disputes' Act of 1906. This Act made "peaceful picketing" lawful, took away the right of the capitalist to recover damages for loss of trade in a dispute from the funds of the union, and prevented a trade union being sued for the acts of its members.

However, another attempt was made, in 1908, to find "a weak spot in the armour of the trade unions" by the famous Osborne Judgment. This case challenged the right of the Trade Unions to meddle in politics at all, and decided that a union could not make a compulsory levy for Parliamentary representation. Injunctions were granted against many of the Unions, and the position was only remedied by the Trade Union Act of 1913, which recognised the right of the unions to use their funds for political purposes, but ordered that that such funds should be kept separate, and that any person having a conscientious objection to paying for benefits received by him, should, by filling up a form, have the right of exemption. The unions so far have not been strong enough to secure compulsion in this matter; the battle is unfinished.

The Workmen's Compensation Act of 1897, the Miners' Eight Hour Bill and 0ld Age Pensions of 1908, and the Minimum Wage and National Insurance Acts of 1912 were events of this period. Before turning to the industrial activity which followed the disappointment of the high hopes of 1906, it should be noticed that the failure of the craft union outlook revealed itself upon the political field. No party can be "forrarder" than its members, and the workers, as a whole, do not possess that class-consciousness which is necessary to successful action upon both fields. When that is achieved, the Labour Party will no longer be emasculated by reformism, and content to be the useful ally of another party. Parliament can afford to disdain the protests of a Grayson or a Lansbury, just because these protests are not backed by industrial might. The M.P. of the future, having this, will compel attention; "the scaffolding" of the industrial commonwealth must needs be built.

Labour Unrest.-While there are many contradictory explanations of the Industrial Unrest, which lasted from 1906 to the outbreak of the European War, its existence is admitted by all. Before investigating its causes, we will enumerate some of the chief incidents in which it was manifested. In 1906 and 1907 there was a series of local strikes in South Wales over the non-unionist question; and in the latter year the "all-grades movement" of the railwaymen threatened a stoppage, only avoided by the intervention of Mr. Lloyd George with his Conciliation Boards machinery.

A fifteen years' peace was broken in the cotton industry in 1908 by a seven weeks' strike, followed by another in 1909. In the same year, contrary to their officials' advice, the N.E. engineers struck, and in 1910 the Boilermakers won a contest in spite of the stubborn resistance of the employers, and also the opposition of their own officials.

The year 1911 saw a brief strike among the railway-men and successful agitation by the transport workers. The M.F.G.B. secured in 1912 the minimum wage principle by a six weeks' national strike. 1,462 disputes, involving 677,254 workers, took place in 1913, one of which was the famous Dublin strike. The outbreak of the war curtailed a prolonged dispute in the London building trade, where the employers had locked out their men for refusing to work with non-unionists.

False "Causes."- To explain and understand the cause of a disease is to make the first step towards its cure. Many explanations and cures were put forward in relation to this undeniable disease of the 20th century, Industrial Unrest.[For more recently assigned causes and cures, consult Reports of Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest (1916),. No. 7 (South Wales) being especially interesting.] Some of the attempts at explanation need not detain us long. We can afford to quickly dismiss the theory advanced by the conservative person who thinks that the present discontent is the result of the workers having lost their respect for their betters, and who sighs for the "good old days" when children were not sent to school till they were thirteen years of age. True, education of the right sort is a lever of progress, but much that is now taught in the schools has to be deliberately unlearnt in later life, and, only in an indirect fashion is general education the cause of industrial unrest.

Time would also be wasted in dealing at length with the theory which ascribed the growing unrest to the increase of selfishness; whose advocates advance an ethical solution to the problem. The sufferings in the industrial warfare and the beauties of peace are enlarged upon by these pacifists. But they ignore the present hard situation. Classes cannot love each other while one of them is busy not praying for but preying upon the other.

Another theory attributed the cause of unrest to climatic conditions. Workmen felt disinclined to work in the hot summer days, and it was supposed that it only needed a trifling dispute to provoke a stoppage. Though this theory is not so high up in the clouds as the former one, yet it located the cause of the disturbance far enough away to be out of man's reach. Its superficiality is obvious; a strike is a grim holiday. Behind strikes there is an economic heat, engendered by the friction between master and man, of which learned writers are unaware. Not having had any experience of the class-struggle, they doubt its existence.

The Great Man Theory was also brightened up to do duty on this occasion. Able agitators, with their inflammatory speeches and writings, were said to be the cause of the trouble. But though able speakers and writers do considerably help to awaken industrial unrest, they only focus attention upon facts; they cannot create them.

False Cures.-Many cures were put forward as certain remedies. The boasted panacea, Free Trade, having failed to prevent unemployment - the unemployment returns of the Trade Unions in 1908, for example, rising from 4.3 to 9.1 per cent- a return to tariff protection was proposed. Those who would build up a tariff wall around the nation forgot, however, that there is "an enemy within the gates," i.e., the capitalist; who, though he points out how national trade is decreased and unemployment created by the free imports produced by machinery and cheap foreign labour, has no scruples about introducing machinery and cheap labour himself, if he has the opportunity.

Other cures coming from the bourgeois physicians, were schemes of profit-sharing and co-partnership, which claimed to unite master and worker in one common interest and prevent all further unrest. These schemes have, on the whole, failed; they have been well likened to a rider, seated upon the back of a donkey, who enjoys a speedier transit by enticing the beast to travel at a faster rate in order to gain a carrot which its rider for ever dangles ahead of its nose.

Another "red herring" was the attempt of the Workers' Educational Association to revive the old ideology of the 1850-70 period, when it was believed that it was only necessary for master and man to understand each other's viewpoint and they would recognise their identity of interest and become the best of friends. Even Gibbins' text-book--excellent in many respects- may be disagreed with on this point. (See pages 220 and 231). An organization thus foolishly hoping to accomplish the impossible, to reconcile the irreconcilable, is not to be trusted with the teaching of the social sciences to the workers. Testimonials to the success of the W.E.A. as an antidote to industrial unrest, from opponents of this unrest, are not hard to find.

Minor consequences arising were Governmental inquiries into methods of conciliation and arbitration adopted by other countries to settle industrial disputes. Beyond the creation of an Industrial Council, no attempt was made to embody the result of these inquiries in any legal enactment. Labour Exchanges and the Insurance Act but tinkered with the real problem.

True Causes.- Having "cleared the ground," we can estimate the true causes; they were:-

(1) A rise in the cost of living. The "mitigating factor" which had delayed militancy now ceased. Real wages diminished from 1897 onwards. Prices rose, and the workers, then as ever, stood to lose in a rising market because they cannot quickly raise their wages to follow the soaring prices.

One important factor which caused prices to rise was the cheapening of gold resulting from the application of sience and machinery to goldmining; the amount of the annual output has risen from £20,00O,00O to £90,000,000.[As explained by the Labour Theory of Value the process takes place thus: The gold, containing less labour, would be of less value; therefore it would need more gold to purchase the same amount of other commodities than before, provided, of course, that the value of these commodities had not also been decreased in the same way. Hence the purchasing power of the workers' wages would be smaller.]

The costs of Imperialism, by raising taxation, also increased the cost of living. "The closest and most malign influence," says Gibbins, "was that of the South African War (1899-1903) which, after at first giving an impetus to the trades supplying the munitions of war, left behind it a legacy of debt, increased military and naval expenditure, and widespread depression in trade, with consequent unemployment during the 'lean years' which followed. The National Debt in 1898-99, before the outbreak of war, stood at £638,000,000, but had risen by 1903-4 to £798,000,000, or to the level of 1870, thus wiping out in four years the laborious debt reduction of more than thirty years." The verdict of future historians upon modern events, when the ravages of war-fever have subsided, should be interesting.

(2) The further introduction of machinery, with all its accompanying intensification of labour, growth of unskilled processes and unemployed workers. The forces which became prominent in the Industrial Revoltion have not ceased their operation. The concentration of capital, the growth of the big business and the need for larger starting capitals may all be noted. Capitalism proceeds to its dissolution.

(3) Another true cause of Industrial Unrest, and one arising out of the general laws of capitalist production, is the fact that, besides the decrease in real wages and the growth of unemployment, as outlined above, the relative wages of the labourer decrease also. The rate of profit may be less, but its mass is greater. The contrast between luxury and poverty becomes more glaring. The luxury motor in the street, the display in the shop windows illustrating the heights reached by modern production, and the dress and leisure of the well-to-do - these are things which emphasise the worker the poverty of his own position.

The True Cure.-To sum up the causes of Industrial Unrest, it might be said truly that it is the logical outcome, the inevitable result, of the development of the capitalist system. Passing on to deal with its consequences upon the policy, and structure of the Trade Unions, we shall see the true cure and the solution to the problem in the making.

The strongest tendency in the modern Trade Union movement is one to secure unity; amalgamation is the order of the day. The unions are being driven to revise their basis, policy and structure by necessity born of experience. Different ideals as to their importance in the future society prevail from those which obtained when Collectivism and political activities were predominant.

The policy of diplomacy and skilled bargaining becomes more out of date. The lengthy agreement makes way for a shorter.

The old bureaucratic centralisation is found to be a hindrance to mass action. We noticed, in some of the unofficial strikes, friction between the leaders and the led. The problem is to secure democratic control without sacrificing efficiency; to get all grades and sections of the industry into the Industrial Union without getting any of the sectional interests snowed under. Some of the unions have already tackled these problems. The need for efficiency necessitates alert intelligence.

When the union is no longer a sick and death club, when the class antagonism is clearly understood, and when craft-consciousness has made way for class-consciousness, then the aim of the unionists will be to give "the knock-out blow" to the true cause of industrial unrest.

Despite all the prophecies we hear from the pacifists of the finish of war upon the industrial field, the effects of the present crisis will be to hasten and not change the development of the forces which we have seen are immanent in the capitalist system. The shortage of male labour has stimulated rather than started the dilution of labour and the use of labour-saving machinery. Our newspapers and illustrated papers contain ample evidence of the rapidity of this process. The true meaning of State control has been forcibly learnt. In its two centuries of life, Trade Unionism has fought its way upward into importance, in spite of the obstacles placed in its way. And who shall say what it will accomplish in its future? The class which has opposed it will, when the workers have the power to think and the will to do, be deposed by this its conquering rival.

BO0KS.-Gibbins, Period V. Craik's Modern Working-Class Movement, Sections VII.-XI. Cole's World of Labour, for details of the present state of Trade Unionism, abroad as well as at home. The Miners' Next Step (1912) attracted much attention in Parliament and elsewhere on its publication. Issued by an Unofficial Reform Committee inside the S.W.M.F., it deserves the attention of the student as a clear statement of the aims and policy of the advanced section of trade or industry unionism. Mr. W. H. Mainwaring, the Committee Secretary, confesses to only one effective criticism :- "It is not so much a 'step' as a whole 'staircase.'"